Art as Encounter – Relational aesthetics and the quality of the encounter
Over the past few decades, we have been witnessing the shaping of a new form of art, one that puts a significant emphasis on the relationship between the artist and the public, perhaps more than ever before; one where the public has become a crucial part of the creative process. Nicolas Bourriaud defines relational aesthetics as a contemporary art practice centered on inter-‐human relations, where the core of the concept is the word “participation” and it is based on inter-‐ subjectivity, and which “takes being-‐together as a central theme, the ‘encounter’ between the beholder and the picture, and the collective elaboration of meaning.”1 In this paper, I wish to analyze the quality of the encounters that take place within this participatory practice, depending on the degree of public participation, the kind and the intensity of the emotion produced by the artist and how it is perceived by the viewer. I will focus mainly on the work of Rirkrit Tiravanija, Felix Gonzalez-‐Torres and Alix Lambert, three of the artists mentioned by Nicolas Bourriaud, in his book “Relational Aesthetics”.
Introduction What can be defined as “encounter”? How can we describe “art as encounter”? Is it art lived as a “pure experience”? It is something that makes us aware of ourselves, a revealing emotion which seemingly comes from within, but is generated by something beyond our comprehension, perhaps an exterior correspondence. As Gilles Deleuze sais, “something in the world forces us to think. This something is an object not of recognition, but of fundamental encounter.”2 What generates this sensation? Or, if we are to speak about relational aesthetics, who generates this encounter? Nicolas Bourriaud believes the origin lies within the artist’s concept and ideas. He believes a successful relational project is one in which artists and viewers communicate creatively with one another, that is, they “produce” relationships. Claire Bishop stated she does not trust in Bourriaud’s theory, as the “relations set by relational aesthetics are not intrinsically democratic, as Bourriaud suggests, since they rest too comfortably within an ideal of subjectivity as whole and of community as immanent togetherness.”3 Put differently, what Claire Bishop is inferring is that the relational artist expects the viewer to participate and does not question neither the degree of participation nor the nature of the participant. According to John Dewey, the beholder cannot fully comprehend the significance of art and perceive its quality unless he/she is aware of art history and its evolution. “The perceiver, as much as the creator, needs a rich and developed background which, whether it be painting in the field of poetry, or music, cannot be achieved except by consistent nurture of interest.”4 In other words, it is a matter of connecting the dots and if the viewer is not familiarized with the art practices, that artist’s concept or idea can barely generate any question or emotion. I consider living an artistic experience is something beyond our background and education; it is something that connects us to reality. Art is an imitation of the reality and perhaps it is the only way to make obvious something otherwise imperceptible. Experiencing art is a pure emotion and it is a highly subjective matter. It is pure since it comes 1 Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics; (Les presses du reel, 2002), p. 15; 2 Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, p. 139; 3 Claire Bishop, Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics, p. 67; 4 John Dewey, Art as Experience, p. 266;
from within and the foundation of it cannot be easily tracked and revealed; it is subjective, for each human being perceives it differently. We literally see colors differently; therefore an objective truth cannot be attainable. There is something beyond this reaction that links us to a work of art. Living a “pure experience” within relational art is perhaps like as pure as a love encounter. It involves two entities, affecting them both in such way that they become the subject of the experience. Similarly, a relational piece affects the artist in the same way as it affects the viewer. The question here might be: What is the actual cause of this encounter? Where does love come from? We realize the feeling has formed within our souls, but we do we manage to find the source of it? Is it perhaps a higher force where all this originates from? Felix Guattari speaks about the encounter as “affect”; depending on how the affect is exerted on the percept and to what extent, one can see the quality of an encounter: “Affect is thus essentially a pre-‐personal category, installed ‘before’ the circumstances of identities, and manifested by unlocatable transferences, unlocatable with regard to their destination […].”5 Hence, the viewer and the artist become the subject of the concept, but they are unable to tell where the emotions come from, or what new realms they are headed towards. And since it is a matter of “subjectivization”, I have found three types by analyzing the sincerity of the emotion that the three artists transfer within their projects. Rirkrit Tiravanija …..Gonzalez-‐Torres and Alix Lambert. Rirkrit Tiravanija and the “positive”6 encounter Rirkrit Tiravanija’ work is centered on food and the social aspects of eating. One of his projects consisted of him cooking meals for people attending galleries and museums. “Pad Thai, Vegetable Curry and Cup O’Noodles are among the various dishes Tiravanija has fed his participants/audience in galleries and museums from Sotto to Venice.”7 He is a New-‐York based artist who grew up in Ethiopia, Argentina and Bangkok and much of this project is influenced by his experience in his grandmother’s restaurant in Bangkok. Tiravanija believes that food and people’s interaction with it are defining elements of human existence. In this case, cooking for free becomes an event that brings people together for the purpose of communication. People have an authentic experience, they shape new forms of relationship, learn to see art as an “open-‐ended” matter, as Bourriaud calls it, “a period of time to be lived through, like an opening to unlimited discussion.”8 Spinoza defines this type of experience as a “joyful encounter”: “organizing good encounters, composing actual relations, forming powers, experimenting.” Here we speak about the direct encounter between the artist and the viewer, the dialogue. It is the type of experience where the “affect” exerts an undeviating 5 Felix Guattari, Ritornellos and Existential Affects -‐ Polysemiosis, p.161; 6 Simon O’Sullivan mentions the term “joyful encounters”, when referring to Spinoza and Deleuze’s definitions on the “affect” and the “affected body”. “An affect is then not simply a given intensity, although in a sense it begins with this. For Deleuze–Spinoza the latter is in fact termed affection, or the actual ‘state of the affected body’ (which in itself ‘implies the presence of the affecting body’ (PP 49)). These affections ‘express our state at a given moment in time … they are a slice of our duration’ (ECC139).” (Simon O’Sullivan, Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari – Thought beyond Representation, p. 41) 7 Amy Stafford, Surface Magazine, issue no. 5; 8Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Les presses du reel, 2002), p.15;
impact on participants. Thus, the “addressee” has the power to send back the emotions that he/she receives from the “utterer”.9 This is the instant where the artist and the viewer become one, sharing the same experience. They become the subject. It is a given moment in time, a “duration”, when subjectivization is born – “the production of joyful encounters that increase our capacity to act in the world.”10 In this type of shared experience, the public is given the role of the cocreator. Claire Bishop argued on the quality of the public that is attending Tiravanija’s events and whether or not this is indeed art only because it takes place within a gallery. I would argue that the concept is highly dependent on the context and the quality of the public. And Bourriaud clearly states that “Those artists proposing as artworks a/ moments of sociability” and “b/ objects producing sociability also sometimes use a relational context defined in advance so as to extract production principles from it. The exploration of relations existing between, for instance, the artist and his/her gallery owner may determine forms and a project.” The fact that Tiravanija’s event takes place within a gallery or a museum changes not only the context, but also the quality of the viewers. This is what actually distinguishes it from the simple idea of “entertainment” within a restaurant. Many of Tiravanija’s participants were artists and curators. By bringing together a community of artists, the project itself gives birth to new creations, new ideas, new concepts and events. Hence, we can see a positive outcome of these “joyful encounters”. Felix Gonzalez-Torres and the “bitter-sweet” encounter Bourriaud gives the beholder different roles, from ‘passive consumer’, or ‘witness’, from ‘guest’ and even ‘co-‐producer’ and ‘protagonist’ of the artwork. In the case of Gonzalez-‐Torres, the concept is “worked out in inter-‐subjectivity, in the emotional, behavioral and historical response given by the beholder to the experience proposal. The encounter with the work gives rise not so much to a space, […] as to a time span. Time of manipulation, understanding, decision-‐ making, going beyond the act of ‘rounding off’ the work by looking at it.”11 Gonzalez Torres explores the idea of transience and loss with the concept “Untitled(Placebo)”. “The work consists of an endless supply of pineapple-‐ flavored candies wrapped in silver cellophane, which are spread out on the floor.”12 The viewers can passively contemplate the piece, but they are also allowed to take the candies. They are in fact, asked to take one or two candies from the installation, until there are no more candies left. Adults or children, viewers will bend down, dip towards the pile and constantly change the shape of the pile, until they face the final idea of the concept – desolation, death. The concept reflects the artist’s personal struggle with AIDS and love. A placebo is defined as a substance containing no medication that is given to reinforce a patient’s expectation to get well. Hence, “Untitled (Placebo)” can be seen as an escape from death. He has found a way to communicate and bond with people, taking into account the limitations that AIDS creates in terms of physical contact and intimacy. He takes the bitterness, but gives people the sweetness of life. It is 9 10 Simon O’Sullivan, Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari – Thought beyond Representation, p. 78) 11 Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Les presses du reel), p.59; 12 MOMA object files for Felix-‐Gonzalez Torres
a relationship based upon object and viewer, but the “affect” that is exerted indirectly upon the perceiver has a higher emotional intensity, due to the implication of death and love within the concept. Disregarding how much we have evolved, we are still possessed by the fear of death and the desire to love. And the dramatic implication of these two encounters rest upon the viewer perhaps far longer than the “joyful encounter” with authentic food and artistic “immanent togetherness.”13 Bourriaud considers Gonzalez-‐Torres’s work to be “implicit”, “discreet”, and “fluid” and although it lacks visual impact, utterly reveals “subconscious emotions”. (p. 63) “But what matters is what is done with this type of emotions: what they are steered towards, how the artist organizes them along themselves and to what intent.” I would add also “to what extent”. And my question regarding the controlling of the emotions is: Can the artist really control the emotional plan? He initiates the idea, he “inserts” the emotion… but where it goes, how far and what other ideas it can generate depends on the beholder’s background, personality, whether or not he/she relates to the subject. Tiravanija’s project was a given moment in time, an experiment. I believe Gonzalez-‐Torres’s piece is an ongoing process. The emotion is given through the concept, and the participant’s ideas start flowing. It is a piece that perhaps raises new philosophies about life, death, longing, and sexuality…they stick to our minds perhaps long after the exhibition has finished. Alix Lambert and the “ironic” encounter At a Walker Art Center lecture, Simon Critchley refers to joke, as a fundamental encounter that creates human relations. This again, is highly context specific. It can be ironic, entertaining, disturbing, “absurd and extremely obscene.”14 In Art Encounters, a book based on the works of Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze, the author Simon O’Sullivan states “humor can operate as a strategy of dissent – but also of affirmation. In fact, we might see humor as a form of affirmative violence; a violence against typical signifying formations.”15 Alix Lambert’s conceptual work uses the mediums of film, photography, video and performance art to examine how and why we develop social and sexual rules and codes. For her 1993 work “Wedding Project” she married and divorced three men and one woman in the space of six months. Bourriaud considers this is how “Lambert put herself inside the ‘adult role-‐playing’ represented by the institution of marriage. […] The artist here becomes involved in form-‐producing worlds (visit to the fortune-‐teller, officialization of a liaison, etc.), which pre-‐exist him or her, material that is available for anyone to use. […] She exhibits objects produced by this contractual world-‐certificates, official photos and other souvenirs.”16 In an interview with Rachel Greene, Lambert declares she does not disapprove marriage, she just considers it an institution that is reflective of society – and so there are positive and negatives consequences related to it. She also insists to underline “how thoughtful people are about making decisions – and she refers here about Vegas weddings, where “it is possible to get married 13 14 15 Simon O’Sullivan 16 Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Les presses du reel, 2002), p. 34;
without getting out of your car. Further, rectifying a nuptial error with a divorce or annulment has also become, in some cases, extremely customer-‐friendly.”17 As a viewer, I find the “Wedding Project” slightly disturbing. Indeed, I perceive the events within the project as ironical, as a joke on society. Nevertheless, marrying three men and a woman in 6 months and divorcing them all in record time just to prove just how quickly people make wrong decisions in life brings nothing positive to me. Critchley refers to the word “ethos” when he speaks about laughing at people who are not like us. ……. As an individual, I believe in the institution of marriage as being a once in a lifetime event, one that creates a powerful bond between two people brought together by another encounter: love. As an artist, though, I must confess it is a quite idealistic and perhaps unrealistic belief. Hence, in this case the encounter as a joke can generate another encounter – a conflict of beliefs….. As an artist, I would say Lambert dedicated herself completely to the project, becoming a part of it. So, even if the viewer contemplates and observes the documentation and the photographs, he/she becomes entirely “affected” by the concept. It is not the visual impact that is intriguing and disturbing, it is the irony, the joke, the degree of participation of the artist, and again, the ethics. Conclusion In order to determine a certain quality of an encounter, we need a reference point, an ideal. In the Renaissance we could refer to divine perfection as ideal. There is no such thing as divine perfection in the contemporary art practice, at least not based on a general objective point. As I mentioned in the introduction of this essay, we all perceive the world differently and, as contemporary life is giving us the freedom of thought, all art is based on inter-‐subjectivity. I would suggest that the ideal should be established depending on the purity and the intensity of the experience, on how genuinely the “affect” has been imprinted on the onlooker. I felt Gonzalez Torres was the closest to purity, but then again it all depends on the viewer’s understanding of the world and of the ethics. “For Deleuze and Spinoza the science of affect is called ethics; the organization of one’s world so as to produce joyful encounters, or affects which are of the ‘joy-increasing type’, those which increase our capacity to act in the world.”18 Thus, the purity of the encounter lies within the ethics and on how we use and perhaps multiply the emotions and ideas that have been created within our souls after we have experienced an encounter with a relational piece.
17 Alix Lambert, Wedding Project – Interview with Alix Lambert (by Rachel Greene) 18